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Airman wins anthrax-related lawsuit

By William H. McMichael - bmcmichael@militarytimes.com

The Pentagon is removing a letter of reprimand given three years ago to a former Air Force staff sergeant who complained to a doctor, and later a newspaper, about migraine headaches he thought might be the result of his anthrax vaccinations — then later sued the Defense Department over his freedom to speak out about the controversial program.

In the settlement, dated Nov. 29, the Defense Department said the letter of reprimand is “deemed to be of no effect.”

Former Staff Sgt. Jason Adkins made no claim for damages in his lawsuit, and no payments were made; all he wanted was the letter of reprimand removed from his military records.

Still, the Air Force “tried for three years” to get the case thrown out of court, said Stephen Neuberger, Adkins’ lawyer.

In addition to the complaint that his right to speak out was suppressed, Adkins’ suit also alleged that the Air Force tried to make an example of him to silence dissent in his Dover Air Force Base, Del., squadron.

By some estimates, hundreds of service members were punished for refusing to take the shots from 1998, when the Pentagon initiated its mandatory anthrax vaccine program, through 2004.

In October 2004, Adkins, a C-5 transport aircraft flight engineer who had taken all six anthrax shots, awoke with a migraine. While en route to Dover to see a flight surgeon, as safety protocol dictates, he learned via a cell-phone call that he was on tap for a mission the next morning.

Adkins told the doctor he had been suffering headaches for a “long time” and, having read a recent series of investigative stories about the controversial anthrax vaccine in the local media, said he thought his problems might be related to the shots. The surgeon downplayed that notion, changed Adkins’ flight status to “Duties Not To Include Flying” and prescribed some narcotics.

Adkins called his enlisted boss with the news. Within 3½ hours, he was ordered to report in full dress uniform to his squadron commander, Lt. Col. Christos Vasilas. Afterward, two senior sergeants chewed him out, he said, accusing him of dereliction of duty and faking his malady, and gave him a letter of reprimand and 76 hours of additional duty.

Adkins said he endured nearly eight months of harassment, with leaders threatening to pull his flight wings, not letting him wear his flight uniform and keeping him grounded.

But the harassment also drove him to go public, Adkins said.

He went to the media and started talking. He also filed suit against the Defense Department and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, claiming violation of his free speech rights.

Adkins, who now works in a landscaping business in Smyrna, Del., said he’s happy he left. “I just wish they’d stop that anthrax vaccine,” he said. “Nobody wants to say anything because you’re basically ending your career.”

He said he still gets headaches. “Oh, yeah, ... ringing in the ears. It still hasn’t gone away.”